Technology is making life a bit easier for a handful of North Texas corn farmers.

The combination of insecticide treated seed, Roundup Ready hybrids and planting rigs about as wide as a regulation tennis court, save time, aggravation and more than a few headaches.

Seed treated with insecticide by the companies allow farmers to plant without the mess and bother of loading granular insecticides into hopper boxes. The job goes quicker, reduces potential for exposure and growers say control is superior.

Most are replacing cultivators with spray rigs to apply Roundup as a pre-emergent and as an over-the-top solution to most of their weed problems.

And 24-row planters allow them to take advantage of sometimes narrow weather openings to plant at the most opportune time.

Many tried seed-treated corn last year and intend to rely on the technology for the 2004 crop.

Poncho treatment

“I think we'll see a big push from some of the major seed companies to offer treated seed this year,” says Ronnie Lumpkins, Hunt County wheat and corn grower. “I think more of them will offer a return policy, too,” he says. “I got caught several years ago with more treated seed than I could use and the company would not take it back. More are offering that option now.”

Lumpkins says he'll try some Poncho treated seed in 2004. Primary insect target is chinch bug. “I probably will not use any Bt corn yet. I don't have pressure from corn borers.”

“If we had a lot of continuous corn in the area, rootworms might be a bigger threat,” says Jim Swart, Texas Extension integrated pest management specialist working out of Texas A&M-Commerce. “We might need a soil insecticide for corn rootworms but seed treatments work well for chinch bugs. We don't have a single program that controls heavy populations of both.”

“I do not plant corn behind corn,” Lumpkins says. “I follow a corn and wheat rotation.”

Jay Norman, another Hunt County farmer, also plans to try Poncho 250. “Pricing is a big factor,” he says. ‘It's a good product at a good price. I'm not sure it will be better than other seed treatments but control will be comparable and it's less expensive.”

Swart said Poncho 1250 has better rootworm activity than the 250 but it would be a Cadillac treatment that is considerably more expensive.”

Norman will watch part of his corn crop a little closer than usual. “From 20 percent to 25 percent of my acreage will be corn behind corn. The rest follows wheat.” He'll plant 2,500 acres of wheat and 2,600 acres of corn for 2004. He's tried soybeans on a few acres with yields up to 45 bushels per acre on some fields but says production is inconsistent.

He says if he were planting corn four or five years straight, he'd consider Poncho 1250 or YieldGard technology with a seed treatment. “But with my rotation program, I don't think I'll need that much protection.”

Proves its worth

Norman says seed treatment proved its worth last year. “Time was the crucial factor,” he says. “I was able to plant faster because I didn't have to adjust or load insecticide boxes. Also, when the corn seed sprouts the insecticide is right there. With soil insecticides, the plant roots have to go down to take in the insecticide.”

He says the seed treatment also performs better under dry conditions. “Last year, I had more chinch bugs where I used a soil insecticide.”

Norman believes seed technology will replace a lot of traditional chemical applications.

Butch Aycock farms corn and a little wheat in Collin County. He used Cruiser seed treatment last year and says it worked well. He'll also look at Poncho 250 for 2004. Like Norman, price will be a factor. “At around $15 a bag, that's pretty cheap protection against chinch bugs. And if we're not after rootworms, there's no reason to use a soil insecticide.”

Aycock plants only 20 percent of his acreage in wheat each year so he has some fields in corn for four years without a break. “I've seen no problem with rootworms after the fourth or even the fifth year,” he says.

Last year marked the first trial for a seed treatment. “Cruiser worked well and I used it on 100 percent of my acreage,” he says. “Control was excellent.”

He says corn is easier to plant with a seed treatment vs. a soil insecticide. ‘It's just less hassle. The days of granular insecticides are behind us, unless they get dirt cheap and I haven't seen prices drop yet.”

Jack Norman, Jay's uncle and a Grayson County corn and wheat farmer, used Counter and Prescribe seed treatment last year. “Probably two-thirds of my acreage was in Prescribe and it worked great. I didn't have problems with chinch bugs.”

Seed return concern

Jack also wonders about the opportunity to return treated seed if weather or other factors prevent planting. “I've seen companies not willing to take seed back and that can be a problem if we can't use as much as we expected.”

He likes the time savings. “We can plant a lot of acres in a day using treated seed. Everything is in the planter box.” That's a big advantage for him since he plans to plant close to 5,000 acres of corn.

Ben Scholz farms near McKinney, Texas, close to housing developments and industrial complexes. Seed treatments eliminate some of the hassle of pesticide application.

“Instead of granular insecticides, I'll use treated seed, Prescribe, Cruiser or Gaucho. They all worked last year. I had no problems with any of them and they all performed better than granular materials. I'll look at Poncho, too.”

Scholz agrees that seed treatments are easier to use. “I just load the planter boxes, fill the fertilizer tank and go. It's also safer to use”

He says Roundup Ready technology saves time and provides good weed control. “I used Roundup Ready on all my acreage last year. We may not keep fields as clean as we once tried to but we can take out most of the problems with Roundup. But I'll compare the cost of traditional herbicides against technical fees and see which makes the most sense. I'll compare the low rate of Roundup vs. herbicides and the high rate over-the-top.”

He says he may be able to lower weed control costs to $5 per acre with conventional varieties and broadleaf materials.

Aycock used Roundup Ready corn on “about 25 percent of my acreage last year, on fields with higher weed pressure. I was very satisfied with the results.”

Two applications

He used two applications, one within 14 days of emergence and another 25 days after emergence. “Even with rhizome johnsongrass, we got good control.”

His only concern is that some conventional hybrids appear to yield better than those with the Roundup Ready gene.

Jack Norman uses Roundup WeatherMax, applied the day after planting. “When we plant corn, we usually have rain forecast every day. I spend a little extra for Roundup WeatherMax but it's not a lot considering the protection.”

He uses one pint in five gallons of water. “That killed ryegrass five inches tall, thick and growing.”

He says he may switch to a generic product in the summer but he'll stick with WeatherMax at planting. He figures cost runs about $13.25 per acre.

“We have to be careful with Roundup near non Roundup Ready corn, wheat and high value homes. We watch what we're doing. Usually, before corn comes up, the fields are clean.”

Norman says he did not cultivate the first corn row last summer. “That was the first time in 35 years we haven't plowed corn. Cultivation is always a five or six-week chore and with almost 5,000 acres, we simply can't do everything as timely as we would like.”

Big planting rigs also save time.

“I have a John Deere planter, and plant twenty-four 30-inch rows,” Aycock says. “That planter saves a lot of time and it allows me to get more corn in while weather is good. Planting on time is one practice that will increase yield without costing any money,” he says.

During planting season Aycock and his nephew work together using two 24-row planters. “We start on fields that are ready and we keep at it until we get everything finished,” he says.

Speeds planting

Jay Norman says the bigger planter speeds his operation as well. The combination of a big planter and seed treatment allowed Jack Norman to complete planting last spring in 12 days instead of the usual 20.

Jay also will examine tillage practices. “I'm interested in strip-till planting,” he says. “I'd like to get away from breaking ground and I think strip-till has a lot of potential.”

Norman made only three passes across corn land last year, compared to five or six previously.”

Aycock is considering narrowing rows even more. “Row width and plant population are key factors,” he says. ‘But I still need to study the possibilities. For one thing, costs to change equipment will be a concern. And I'm not certain spray operators will be able to stay off those narrow rows. But I have no doubt that it will work.”

He's also pleased with the information he gets from yield monitors mounted on two of his combines. ‘It's unbelievable what I learn,” he says. “I spend a lot of time in the combine at harvest and these monitors show me things I wouldn't see with average yields. For one thing, it sometimes shows that things I thought were not working were effective.”

Time, farmers say, can be their best ally or their worst enemy. Technology, including genetics, chemistry and mechanics are helping farmers in the Northeast corner of Texas get a better grip on time management and they're making better, more efficient crops in the process.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com